Most men's seeds fall in early rounds of US Open tennis play. Steffi Graf's bid for Grand Slam highlights women's competition

Steffi Graf's great progress toward the Grand Slam has dominated attention at the US Open so far, but the true intrigue is in the men's singles. Several angles there deserve more conjecture. Three-time defending champion Ivan Lendl has the most at stake. He has not reached the final of a major championship this year, and needs to win to sustain his No. 1 world ranking.

Another pressing question is whether the Swedes can produce a Team Slam. Mats Wilander, the runner-up to Lendl here at Flushing Meadow last year, captured the first two legs of the Grand Slam in 1988, the Australian Open and the French Open, while his countryman, Stefan Edberg, was the winner at Wimbledon.

Wilander, who only recently turned 24, is the player of the year so far. Mats, who like Lendl lives in Greenwich, Conn., about 40 minutes from the Open stadium, has added a dangerous slice backhand to his two-hander. He also comes to the net more than he did early in his career.

And now he alone carries the ``Swedish Slam'' hopes, since Edberg was dumped out of the singles here via an unexpected loss to unseeded Aaron Krickstein in the fourth round.

Krickstein, the 21-year-old son of a Detroit doctor, used a deft lob and daring passing shots to surprise the No. 3 seed on a chilly, blustery Labor Day evening. The match went a long five sets (5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-5), and Edberg bungled several chances to put Krickstein away as it neared midnight.

``I think the upsets show how deep men's tennis is,'' said Krickstein, who stunned 14th-seeded Andres Gomez earlier in the tournament. ``A few years ago you would never see a player ranked No. 100 go out and beat a big name. Now it's almost commonplace.''

Krickstein was something of a prodigy a few years ago, when he was ranked seventh in the world. He slipped, but has improved his ranking from 64th to 20th this year.

America's tennis future looked brighter through the early rounds of the Open. Teen-agers Alex Agassi, who appears to have more fun playing professionally than anyone else, and Michael Chang advanced to the round of 16 impressively, unfortunately to meet each other.

Meanwhile, the oldest player in the field, Jimmy Connors, got that far too, winning one match on his 36th birthday. Connors has won more pro titles (106) than anybody in history, including five US Opens on three different surfaces. He's favored to meet the Agassi-Chang winner.

``I'm not thinking about retiring,'' says Connors, who is maybe the most marketable tennis player in this country. ``Playing against these kids keeps me young. I don't understand the music they listen to, but I can still give 'em trouble.''

Trouble is what many seeded men tripped over trying to reach the final rounds. Twelve of 16 seeds were eliminated en route to the quarterfinals, including - besides Edberg and Gomez - John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Henri Leconte, Miloslav Mecir, Tim Mayotte, and Yannick Noah.

The grandstand court was a notable terminus for favorites. Joined to the stadium on one side, it is made uncommonly difficult because of shifting shadows and a big, restless crowd seated close to the court.

``And,'' says CBS television commentator Tony Trabert, ``you can add to those factors the increasing psychological pressure from all these upsets this year.''

The women's singles bracket has been more orderly, with seeded players moving along more predictably. Graf impressed everyone in the early rounds, especially her rivals.

``She's the fastest player I've ever seen,'' said Martina Navratilova, who is defending champion, it must be remembered. ``Her speed is her greatest weapon. She has incredible spring in her step and is so quick off the mark. Her footwork is marvelous.''

Her footwork is the reason Graf winds up hitting so many of her fearsome forehands. She can run around her backhand before an opponent finds time to adjust, to smash away another forehand.

``She hits the ball harder than anyone out here,'' says Chris Evert, who played imposingly herself into the quarterfinals. ``She can pound the ball past you from the baseline.''

Does Graf have a weakness?

Her serve is better, but still vincible. She tosses the ball too high and has to hit it as it comes down, a particular challenge on windy days.

But she is clearly the best woman player of the year, and the story of the US Open so far - overshadowing a fascinating tournament on the men's side.

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